The Gulls

Playwright Nick Salamone and composer Maurice McIntyre have loosely adapted Chekhov’s The Seagull to America of the 1950s, handily transforming the Russian classic about artistic idealism and despair into an American musical about commerce and repression. It’s a savvy move, translating the artistic tensions of late-19th-century Russia (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience) into artistic tensions of mid-20th-century America (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience). The American symbolism manifests itself in Beat poetry, embodied in frustrated playwright Conrad (John Keefe) and his love-hate relationship with his aging diva mother, Irenie Bennet (Rendé Rae Norman) — who’s fixated on philandering, successful screenwriter Gore Fitzwarren (Robert Mammana), a man painfully aware of his own mediocrity. The center of the storm is an African-American actress, Nina (Sabrina Sloan). After being toyed with by Gore, she flees Greenwich Village with pals Zelda (Grace Wall) and Conrad so the three can be free spirits in San Francisco. But the tug of Gore pulls her south to meet her spiritual decimation in L.A. (which is what L.A. does best). Salamone’s book comes packed with pithy lines and attitudes, such as Irenie’s contempt for the world being off its axis if the sun sets behind Hoboken rather than into the Pacific, where it should. Clinton Derricks-Carroll portrays a jive-poet narrator with links to both Nina and her parents (Marc Cardiff and Eileen T’Kaye) that are better left unrevealed here. McIntyre’s score has a subtly abstract, dissonant flow, with smidgens of gospel and ’40s swing, accentuated in Kitty McNamee’s buoyant choreography. Despite Jessica Kubzansky’s textured staging and wonderful performances, the event feels pro forma until it finds its emotional stride in Act 2, when it enters the Land of Disappointments. There’s a heart wrench for all seasons when Gore, isolated in Beachwood Canyon to write his next screenplay, is visited by his young former muse and has nothing to offer but politeness and platitudes. The play’s closing scene contains a hollow gush worthy of Gore, or Rent, but that’s not worth dwelling on when there’s so much good work on this stage.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: July 26. Continues through Aug. 24, 2008